If there’s one thing that negotiators have practiced this year, it’s thinking on their feet. As our 10 notable negotiations of 2020 illustrate, the coronavirus pandemic left individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and governments trying to replace outmoded plans with more workable alternatives.
10 Notable Negotiations of 2020
10. Struggling to play ball. This year, sports leagues scrambled to reach deals with players’ unions to start or resume their seasons with health, financial, and logistical accommodations for the Covid-19 pandemic. Major League Baseball and its Players Association, for example, were locked in an impasse for months regarding player salaries and the number of games to play. And in early June, the National Basketball Association and its players union reached a deal to resume their disrupted 2019–20 season by allowing some teams to play out the season at a Disney World “bubble.” In these notable negotiations in business, the challenges of accommodating financial interests to health risks were on full display.
9. That’s entertainment? In 2020, film and television productions ground to a halt as studios, casts, and crews negotiated how to safely get back to work. In September, the major entertainment studios and unions agreed on a comprehensive set of safety protocols, including a zone-based safety system for sets and strict testing regimens. Meanwhile, with movie theaters closed indefinitely, Universal Pictures and other studios flouted custom by releasing films on streaming services. “The movie business will never look the same,” Variety declared after AMC Theatres and Universal reached a negotiated agreement to shorten the time that films are reserved for the silver screen. Sometimes only a crisis shakes up outdated business models.
8. Toasting better days ahead. With many restaurants closed nationwide and tourism at a standstill, the U.S. wine industry was ravaged by Covid-19. The horrible year was made immeasurably worse when West Coast wildfires tainted some of the season’s grape harvest. Many wineries told growers that they would only accept grapes that passed lab tests checking for “smoke taint.” But some buyers, focused on the long term, looked for ways to share the risk. Napa grape farmer Pete Richmond told Wine Spectator about wineries that had agreed to pay him to leave smoke-tainted grapes on the vine. “We’re in this together,” he said. It was a hopeful attempt at integrative bargaining.
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7. U.S.-Taliban negotiations. In February, the Trump administration and the Taliban reached an agreement that specifies a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for limited commitments from the Taliban on security and power sharing with the Afghan government. The negotiations—and uncertainty in their aftermath—highlight the challenges of deal making when trust is low.
6. The chaotic quest for PPE. As Covid-19 descended on the United States, state governors and Congress urged the White House to put the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in charge of securing and distributing much-needed personal protective equipment, coronavirus tests, and ventilators. But President Donald Trump encouraged the states to try to buy and distribute supplies themselves instead. The quest for desperately needed supplies and equipment turned into a chaotic free-for-all—a deadly and devastating illustration of destructive competition in negotiation.
5. Broken contracts. As a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, many deals-in-progress became inadvisable or impossible to carry out. Corporate buyout firm Sycamore tried to renege on its agreement to buy struggling lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, which closed shops and implemented drastic cost-cutting measures to stay afloat. The parties ultimately agreed to abandon the acquisition. In addition, Japanese conglomerate SoftBank pulled out of a deal to buy $3 billion of stock from investors and employees of WeWork, whose office-leasing business model disintegrated amid social-distancing measures. The crisis attests to the need to prepare for the worst when it’s time to negotiate business contracts.
4. Finally, Brexit. In the final days of 2020, the European Union and the United Kingdom agreed to terms for a post-Brexit future after four years of bitter government negotiations and impasse. To close the deal, U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson had to make significant concessions, including on state aid to businesses and European fishing rights. But the agreement, which still needs to be ratified by the British and European Parliaments, brought widespread relief at the prospect of heading off a possible “no-deal Brexit.”
3. Calls for racial equity. After the killing of George Floyd by a White Minneapolis police officer on May 25, millions took to the streets to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Highlighting that nonviolent action and negotiation are a powerful combination, the activism lent support to the Black Lives Matter movement’s calls for police defunding and increased investments in Black communities. Many organizations also resolved to try harder to build workplaces where African Americans are adequately represented, treated equitably, and feel a sense of belonging—starting with employment negotiation.
2. Zooming into the future. With the Covid-19 pandemic moving many negotiations to video platforms, we’ve all been scrambling to get up to speed in this new medium, with mixed results. On the one hand, “Zoom fatigue” is real. Experts like Creighton University professor Noam Ebner advise us to take frequent breaks and to check in frequently with negotiating counterparts to see how they’re doing. On the other hand, virtual negotiation has brought cost savings, convenience, and opportunities for more people to claim a seat at the “table.”
1. Vaccine negotiations. At the start of the novel coronavirus outbreak, leading drugmakers teamed up to develop and mass-produce effective Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Focused on beating the virus rather than their rivals, they also openly shared data and advice. These collaborative negotiation examples can inspire all of us to work with unlikely allies on shared goals. But as wealthy nations tied up deals to secure enough Covid-19 vaccine doses to protect their populations many times over, billions of residents of developing nations were left out in the cold, victims of “vaccine nationalism.”
What other notable negotiations of 2020 would you add to our list?